a man in a library in a wheelchair

Facts on Disability in The UK

If disability hasn’t affected your life or any of those around you, you might not realise the impact this can have on people and their families and the way it can change their lives. 

As a business that’s main aim is to make life easier for those with a disability, this is something we see every day and take into consideration as part of our Disability Access Audits.

Here are some stats and facts to make you think. 

  • Around one fifth of Scotland's population, around one million people, define themselves as disabled. Yet disabled people often experience higher levels of inequality compared to their non-disabled peers.

  • Only 50% of disabled people of working age are in work compared to 80% of non-disabled people of working age.

  • The percentage of disabled people experiencing difficulties in accessing goods or services related to their impairment or disability has decreased from 37 per cent in 2005 to 32 per cent in 2008.

  • In Britain over 10 million people have a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability - this is over 18 per cent of the population.

  • The most common types of impairment for adults in Britain are those associated with a difficulty in mobility, lifting and carrying.

  • Disabled children are more likely to have a mental condition like learning or communication difficulties, rather than a physical impairment.

  • The occurrence of disability increases with age - around 1 in 20 children are disabled, compared to around 1 in 7 working age adults and almost 1 in 2 people over state pension age.

  • Disabled people are fifty per cent less likely to hold any formal qualification compared with non disabled people.

  • Disabled people are more likely to be unemployed than non disabled people - in 2008, 48.4 per cent of disabled people were in employment compared with 79.6 per cent of non disabled people.

  • 25 per cent of individuals in families with at least one disabled member live in income poverty, on a before housing cost basis, compared to 16 per cent of individuals in households with no disabled member.

  • Around three in four people believe there is some level of prejudice in Britain towards disabled people.


Our thoughts on the Tokyo Paralympics.

Our reflections on this years Paralympics in Tokyo and the progress that has been made for accessibility and attitudes.

The 2021 Paralympics were groundbreaking for Team GB, winning 41 gold medals, 38 silver and 45 bronze. A grand total of 124 medals placed them second in the overall table behind China, which must surely rank as the best in British Paralympic history.

This barely begins to tell the story. 

The team secured a new record and won medals in 18 of the 19 sports they entered. Team GB also won medals in a greater range of sports than ever before. 56% of the athletes who made their debut at the games won a medal. While others, such as Sue Bailey, claimed Bronze on her seventh attempt.

An outstanding achievement for the athletes, coaches, trainers, club staff and families who supported Team GB along the way. We also hope that this is a reflection of how accessible sports facilities are here in the UK and the support available for anyone thinking of taking up a sport.

Personal Stories

Behind the impressive haul of medals, are stories of grit, bravery and determination to succeed as athletes.

Sarah Storey was born without a functioning left hand. Sarah's arm became entangled in the umbilical cord in the womb. This meant that her hand didn’t develop as normal, but none of this stopped her from chasing her dreams. Fresh after winning a record 17th gold medal she is now Britain's greatest Paralympian.

Reece Dunn was diagnosed with autism at the age of 13. His parents wanted Reece to learn swimming as a life skill. Now Reece is Britain's most successful athlete in Tokyo with five medals (three golds) on his debut.

The most powerful image of the games came from Ibrahim Hamadtou who lost both his arms in an accident when he was just 10 years old. He now plays table tennis with the paddle in his mouth.

The personal stories and backgrounds of the athletes are just as important as the medals they won. We also think these three stories alone show how wide the scope is when we all should be thinking about accessibility. These athletes are the embodiment of anything’s possible, if you are determined, work hard enough and have the right support.

The astonishing achievements of the athletes are nothing short of brilliant. Watching the interviews on Channel 4's "The Last Leg", when they were relaxed and back home was humbling. They are among some of the best role models young people can look up to. Open to talk about their experiences and not shy of working as hard as they can to achieve greatness.

Infrastructure

The Paralympics have paved the way for a new chapter for disability awareness. In Tokyo, around 96% of its subway and railway stations are now equipped with step-free access and almost 100% of them are utilising tactile paving. Barrier-free entry to sports venues, hotels and transport links has also improved.

We also found it reassuring the Tokyo 2020 organising committee defined accessibility as,

“the availability of smooth access to social infrastructure, facilities, equipment, products and services for people of all ages and all abilities.”

A universal blueprint and legacy which can transform not only the lives of people with disabilities but society as a whole.

The phrase we hope spreads from Tokyo is “universal access”.

Some other design aspects from the Tokyo games could also bring new audiences to some events here in the UK. The stadium had an abundance of accessible washrooms and a non-impeded view of the field of play from seats dedicated to wheelchair users. “Calm down” rooms were also built for people sensitive to excessive stimuli and rest areas for service dogs and guide dogs.

In transportation, low floor buses made up about 56% of total vehicles in 2017, this has increased to 70%. While 92% of train stations now have step-free access with more spaces being made available for wheelchairs on the famous bullet train.

Tokyo became the first Japanese city to issue an ordinance for barrier-free design standards for hotels and lodgings. This included widening entrances to at least 80 centimetres and eliminating the use of steps in rooms.

We’re not holding up Tokyo as the Gold standard. We are just highlighting some of the improvements that have been made and how these could be applied to our own facilities here in the UK.

Attitude

Having accessible facilities without barriers is only one part of the picture. The second part of the equation is having trained staff that can make sure everyone feels comfortable using those facilities. 

We are delighted to read that Paralympics staff and volunteers were trained in disability etiquette and awareness. 

Our half-day Disability training Course can also help develop your staff. Our core belief is by improving people’s awareness, other positive changes follow on naturally

As much as these changes to buildings, services and transport are all important. It means little without changing attitudes.

Here at Access for All, we thought this year’s Channel Four Paralympics campaign was more thoughtful and thought-provoking than any other year called “Super. Human”. It tells a more personal story about the athletes who make huge sacrifices to be able to compete at the top of their sport, but also showing the discrimination and challenges they face in their daily lives.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjIP9EFbcWY

Our hopes

The Paralympics and surrounding coverage should be a catalyst for change. We hope it starts more conversations about disability and daily challenges. The need for universal design across businesses, shops and sports facilities while placing a greater emphasis on humanity and equality across all areas of life.

We hope the Paralympics lead to more education on the wide and varied types of disabilities that people live with daily, the seen and the hidden disabilities. Improving attitudes will go a huge way to get us to the point of equality quicker as we appreciate that exercise and getting outdoors is good for everyone's health.

We also have to keep in mind that Team GB are athletes who train daily and make huge sacrifices to get to the top of their game. Holding up everyone to these standards isn’t useful. Being underestimated, or overestimated can lead to inaction and that is just as harmful. 

We are all about progress.


man in a wheelchair inside an office building

What is BS8300?

man in a wheelchair inside an office building

BS8300 is a British Standard that sets out how buildings should be designed, constructed and maintained to create an accessible and inclusive environment for disabled people.

BS8300 is in place to ensure that everyone can use a built environment equally. Everybody, particularly the disabled, elderly or those less able to stand, should be able to enter, use and exit a building easily, comfortably and independently. This includes being able to escape in the event of an emergency.

Previous versions of the British Standard have focused on the provision of accessibility solutions specifically for the disabled. The most recent version, BS8300:2, however, has been developed to explain how developers can build inclusive environments from the start. That is, rather than bolting on separate accessible facilities, it details how the whole environment can be made universally accessible.

The detail of the document aims to give those in the construction industry a firm set of guidelines to adhere to in order to be fully BS8300 compliant. These guidelines apply to a wide list of areas – both within the building and within its immediate surroundings. BS8300’s guidelines are vast and extend to:

  • Entrances
  • Door fittings
  • Steps, stairs and ramps
  • Corridors and passageways
  • Surface finishes
  • Visual signs
  • Lighting
  • Storage facilities
  • Provision of seating

And that’s just to name a few. Everything is considered as every aspect of a building has an impact on a user’s accessibility.

If you’re not sure if your building complies, contact us to discuss one of our Disability Access Audits.


A man's ear with a hearing aid and glasses

Deaf Awareness Week

This week 3rd – 9th May 2021 is Deaf Awareness Week.

Deaf Awareness Week is a unique campaign which many different organisations take part in, each promoting their own work within the broad spectrum of deafness.

This years campaign will focus on ‘coming through it together’, working with our members to continue to raise awareness more so now than ever and to ensure that we continue to campaign together whilst focusing on positivity going forward.  

Around 1 in 6 people in the UK have some form of hearing loss and the employment rate for those with hearing loss is 65%, compared to 79% of people with no long-term health issue or disability. Moreover, recent estimates suggest that the UK economy loses £25 billion a year in lost productivity and unemployment due to hearing loss.

This needed be the case with a little thought and understanding by everyone.

Here’s our tips on communicating with someone with a hearing impairment that you can take into your workplace. 

  • Always face the person you’re speaking to so they can see your lip movements

  • Speak clearly, not too slowly and use normal lip movements gestures

  • Use plain language

  • Don't cover your mouth when speaking
  • Don’t be frightened of gesturing or trying to use your hand. 

  • Always ask, even is someone is using a hearing aid, if they need to lipread you

  • Make sure you have the person’s attending before you start stpeakding

  • Keep your voice down, it can be uncomfortable for hearing aid users if you shout and it can appear aggressive

  • Make sure what you are saying is being understood

  • For longer chats, find a place to talk that has good lighting away from noise and other distractions

If you are your team would like to know more and would like to find out about our Disability Awareness Training Courses call us on 0800 246 1759.


Making Your Small Business More Disability Aware

customer service

Being aware of the needs of disabled people isn’t just good business sense, it’s good for your business as a whole.

As lockdown measures begin to ease, many small companies are busy preparing to welcome back customers to their premises and attract new customers to their business.

With many social contact restrictions still in place, it won’t be “business as normal” and businesses will need to think creatively about how they will work in going forward.

Attracting disabled customers

Disabled customers are frequently overlooked and misunderstood. Most people think of wheelchair users when they think about disability access but in fact, less than 8 per cent of disabled people in the UK use a wheelchair. The majority of disabilities – over 90 per cent – are not immediately visible. 

This includes people with learning disabilities, sensory impairments and mental health conditions, as well as people with conditions such as autism and dyslexia.

All businesses have a duty to make their products and services accessible to disabled people under the Equality Act (2010), however, getting accessibility right and being disability aware isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business.

The annual spending power of disabled people and their families is estimated to be worth around £274bn in the UK alone, and this figure is rising.

Here at Access for All, we work every day making premises and businesses accessible for those with a disability, that’s why, to help you get your business moving again, we’ve put together this list of small adjustments you can make to to help make a difference. 

Ways you can make a difference 

Offer your customers a choice of ways to contact you

Offering different ways of being able to contact your business is helpful. For example, someone who faces difficulties communicating over the phone due to a hearing impairment, can contact you by email, or text instead. By offering alternative contact methods, it increases the accessibility of your business and means disabled customers are less likely to go elsewhere.

Make customers aware that you offer accessibility

Let disabled customers know that you are committed to making their shopping experience good. You can do this via inclusivity statements on your website, featuring disabled people in your imagery, and adding alt tags to images you use on your website and social media channels. This will let disabled customers know you consider them as important as anyone else, and help them feel comfortable to discuss their requirements.

Never assume the existence or absence of a disability

It is likely that at least one in five of your customers will have a disability of some kind and many will not be visible. Asking “Can I help you?” can encourage customers to tell you what they need. Don’t be embarrassed about saying or doing the wrong thing; some disabled customers may not feel confident asking for help and welcome proactive customer service. Always be on the lookout for people who may need extra assistance and offer help regardless of whether or not you think the person has a disability.

Be (assistant) pet friendly

Allowing assistance and therapy dogs onto your premises will help widen your audience. Assistance and therapy dogs provide vital support disabled people and those with long-term conditions.  You can pick up an ‘Assistance Dogs Welcome’ sign for as little as £3 and it can make a huge difference.

Make customers feel safe

There has been a lot of miscommunication in the media around Covid-19 and disability. Not everyone who has a disability will be more susceptible to Covid, but over half of the people who have died from the disease were disabled.

Creating environments where customers feel safe and know their needs are being considered is important. You can help make the shopping experience safer, and make disabled customers feel more at ease, by continuing some of the preventative measures implemented throughout the pandemic. These include hand sanitiser stations, distancing when queuing to pay for goods, and contactless delivery of goods.

Be patient and give customers extra time to complete tasks

Some of your customers may need extra time paying for goods or completing forms. Always be patient and re-assure them that it's ok to take their time.

Be ready to help your customers take their shopping home

Having local public transport information available, including numbers of accessible taxis and be helpful. It is likely your customer has already thought about this but visitors to your premises may be new to the area of not have these to hand.

Being disability aware benefits everyone

Businesses who are disability aware know that it is not just for the benefit of disabled customers, it helps everyone and is great for business.  For example, not only do access ramps help wheelchair users, they also help parents with buggies. Good customer service practices such as asking customers if they need help doesn’t just give disabled customers the opportunity to discuss their requirements, it lets all your customers know that you want to listen and support them.

If you would like to learn more or would like to know about our disability access audits or training we’re here to help.

You can call us on 0800 246 1759 or email [email protected]


people in an office sat looking at a screen

How to Support Hidden Disabilities in the Workplace

Employers large and small need to pay more attention to disabilities that are 'invisible', if they are to provide an inclusive and supportive environment.

people in an office sat looking at a screen

This is the view of leading wellness and employee benefits specialists, who have said managers need to do more to nurture a culture whereby staff suffering from 'hidden' disabilities, such as epilepsy, chronic fatigue, mental illness and many others, feel supported.

When employees are supported, the overall business benefits, according to Darren Michel, claims manager at Generali UK Employee Benefits.

Michel said the key for businesses was to "nurture a culture of wellbeing and support; where employees feel they can be open when and if they want to be – to share information with colleagues and managers and ask for, or seek, support where needed". 

He said in the absence of such a workplace culture important warning signs that the employee is struggling could be missed and they’re unlikely to proffer any information.

When this happens, everyone suffers: the individual, the colleagues and the end consumer, so it is important that "warning signs" are not repeatedly missed, he said.

He added: "Where there isn’t an open and honest dialog between the struggling employee and their line manager or HR employee experience obviously takes a hit. Absences are likely to become unnecessarily protracted.

"Any opportunities for insurer-funded early intervention services are missed, because the underlying reason for the absence isn’t clear. Additional anxiety can be felt by all parties concerned.”

Eventually, Michel warned that communications between employer and employee might break down completely and any motivation to return to work disappears - a situation that helps nobody. 

His comments were echoed by Vitality360's Amanda Mason, career and employment consultant with the company. 

She said it is vital for employers to "create an open, supportive and healthy working environment. This can help people feel more confident in disclosing their disability.

"In such an environment it is more likely that someone can take the steps they need to manage their health or disability within the workplace, even if they choose not to disclose.

“With regards to the question of employees sharing information with HR or line managers about how their disability – or any medication associated – might impact on work, as a guiding principle, unless there is something relating to the specific job function, then it is the individual’s choice whether to disclose.”

A safe space for disclosure

But when it comes to disclosure, it can be hard for employees to offer personal information to their managers or to the HR department.

Some managers are wholly approachable and supportive; others do not present themselves in that way, and so hidden disabilities can often stay hidden - and that can cause problems further down the line.

Vanessa Latham, partner at BLM law, said any employee ought to be able to contact HR for support, "irrespective of whether their line manager is supportive or not". 

When contacting HR, the employee should be clear about what information can be shared with others and manage their expectations accordingly.

For example, if an employee doesn’t want HR to share information about a mental health problem with their line manager, they should make that clear to HR. However, the employee should also understand that withholding information will restrict what HR can do.

Latham added: "It is unlikely HR would be able to change working practises if they cannot explain to the line manager why the change is required.”

Their comments came after Generali UK Employee Benefits hosted a webinar in February, in partnership with Vitality360, on Time to Talk day. 

The seminar - part of a series of workplace wellness webinars scheduled for 2021 - aimed to highlight common difficulties or misunderstandings which may occur in workplaces and deliver strategies that will be useful to employers.

Generali has created a package that includes funding support for their business clients and the employees. Its HR meditation service can help provide a suitable return-to-work solution or help the employee move on in a way that benefits both parties.

Source - FT

Find out if your premises suitable for all your employees with one of our Disability Access Audits


girl in a wheelchair looking in a shop window

'Shopping can be so embarrassing for me'

This BBC News piece isn’t new but one that is still very much and issue today.

Making the relevant adjustments to your retail premises is not only important to do but the right thing to do.

This is something we have a great deal of knowledge and experience in. As a business, you have a legal obligation to ensure that your premises are disability compliant, not only externally and internally, but also with policies and procedures.

Please read Holly’s story to find out more:

A girl in a wheelchair shopping

Shopping can be frustrating at the best of times, but for many disabled people it comes with even more unnecessary challenges - narrow aisles, no step-free access, rushed shop assistants.

For Holly Greader, from Cardiff, going shopping is like "tackling an obstacle course”.

Like many other 21-year-olds she's interested in fashion with a keen eye for a bargain, but as a wheelchair user she's often left frustrated by the barriers she faces on her local high street.

"I've got money that I want to spend, but, due to the fact I can't even get into some shops with steps, they miss out on my cash," she says.

Once she's in a shop, she often finds accessible changing rooms are filled with stock, tills are out of her reach, and many retailers are simply unaware of the needs of her and other disabled customers.

"If staff thought a bit more about my needs and saw me as a proper person rather than a problem to deal with then I think that would make shopping a lot better for me," she says.

It's a frustration felt by many and it translates into hard cash.

According to the Department of Work and Pensions, of the estimated £249bn disabled people spend each year - the so-called Purple Pound - it is believed only about 10% of that is being realised by retailers.

It's something entrepreneur and wheelchair user Mike Adams created out of his own experience.

"I used to get taken on my school 'Happy Bus' as we called it, from my special school in Sussex once a month to the nearby town.

"We were taken into a shop for a special treat where we were able to spend any pocket money our parents had provided."

He said the shop treated their arrival as a "special event", which he hated.

"I very much felt like a disabled person, rather than a person first who happened to have a disability," he recalls.

Mike says that while the retail experience for disabled people in 2018 is a lot better than when he was a child, he's also very clear that retailers still need to do more.

"Shop staff are still unsure of engaging with me," he says. "This isn't through prejudice, but more a fear of offending me through the use of the wrong language or etiquette."

Though communication needs some more work, he says physical access is also still an issue and, though many stores now have ramps or level floor access into the building, the crowded layouts inside make it very difficult to get around without causing damage.

This is something Holly knows only too well.

"Small aisles are virtually impossible to navigate," she says. "If I'm in a clothes shop and there's a sale on, the sale items are usually clumped together making it very hard for me to get to them. I have to ask a member of staff which is embarrassing for me."

Mik Scarlet, a fellow wheelchair user, is a consultant who advises businesses about best practice for disabled access to their stores. He says there needs to be a two-pronged approach to access needs for disabled customers.

"First you need physical access," he says. "Then you need staff trained to assist disabled people to shop as they wish" and points out wheelchair users make up only 10% of the disabled community.

"The rest," he says, "can access the building but need assistance to shop. This is where a lot of businesses let shoppers down."

Scarlet says describing clothes to visually impaired shoppers, learning some sign language or giving people with speech impairments time to ask questions would improve the experience.

"Just giving good service all round makes a business accessible without spending fortunes on redesigning buildings," he says.

Those with hidden disabilities can also find shopping a challenging experience, something the National Autistic Society agrees with.

A survey it conducted found 64% of autistic people avoided the shops and "shockingly" 28% of autistic people have been asked to leave a public place for reasons associated with their autism.

It says: "Like anyone else, autistic people and their families want to have the option of going to shops, whether to pick up the weekly shopping, buy a coffee or browse with a friend."

Purple Tuesday is being supported by hundreds of retailers across the UK, including Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer, Asda and Argos and will involve thousands of members of staff getting some extra training and support to help them in future awareness.

But some disabled people have questioned if there needs to be a day like this at all.

Kathy Bole, chair of the Suffolk Coalition of Disabled People, is sceptical about the concept and worries that retailers will think they've done their bit by being involved.

"It's all well and good having this day on 13 November, but what happens the day after that, and the day after that?" she says.

Holding it on a Tuesday has also raised eyebrows. Diane Wehrle from retail consultancy, Springboard, says it's one of the least busiest shopping days of the week.

"I don't want to have just one day where I might be comfortable going shopping. Disabled people need to be able to go shopping whenever we want," she says.

Holly, in Cardiff, is also somewhat cynical about the day, but is hopeful retailers will learn from Purple Tuesday and that staff will instinctively be able to help in the future.

"This should happen all the time and naturally - not just on a certain day or a certain time," she says. "As someone with a disability I just want to blend in rather than being forced to stand out and be different.”

If you’re not sure if your businesses is accessible or you would like to make the changes required to make a difference, our Access Audits are a good place to start.

You can contact us on 0800 246 1759 or email [email protected]


man in a wheelchair at the bottom of some steps

20% off Disability Access Audits

We want to help everyone ensure their premises are fit for all their customers and to help everyone do this in 2021, we are currently offering a 20% discount on our Disability Access Audits.

Our Disability Access Audits help you to understand your obligations under the Equality Act. It identifies issues with access for people with a disability to your premises and sets out options for removing these barriers.

During an audit, we assess which option is the most reasonable, avoiding unnecessary and very costly measures, for your business and make clear recommendations as to which option to implement, when to do it and an indication of costs.

How is the Disability Discrimination Act/Equality Act 2010 enforced?

The Disability Discrimination Act came into force in 1996 making it illegal to discriminate against a person for reasons related to his or her disability. The DDA requires employers, service providers and education providers to make reasonable adjustments to avoid any discrimination.

Unlike other statutory law, there is no Local Authority or Government Officer who enforces disabled access regulations. It is left to an individual to bring a civil action against an organisation where they feel aggrieved.

What our Access Audit can do for you?

A Disability Access Audit helps you to understand what your obligations are under the Equality Act 2010.

The Access Audit can form the basis of a plan to improve the accessibility of your building, environment or service over time.

By having an Access Audit and then implementing its recommendations, you can demonstrate that you have adopted a reasonable approach, which will help you if you need to defend yourself against a complaint or action by a disabled person, but more importantly, you will be improving access for disabled people and, many other customers that would like to buy from you or use your services.

What does the Access Audit Cover?

The scope of the audit will depend on how the Equality Act 2010 applies help with you with before quoting.

In general, your audit will cover all elements of your building and environment.

An audit will typically cover:

  • Approach and Car Parking
  • Entrances
  • Receptions
  • Corridors
  • Lifts and Stairs
  • Internal Doors
  • Toilets
  • Signage and Way finding
  • Communication
  • Fire escapes

    There are many other site-specific elements, which we also cover, providing you with a comprehensive service bespoke to you.

    If you want to make a difference, contact us.


Purple Tuesday logo

Purple Tuesday

Here at Access For All, we encourage businesses and organisations to look for ways to improve the customer experience for disabled people all year round. 

Purple Tuesday is the 3rd November where those achievements and success stories are being celebrated.

One of the key messages this year is to make do and mend. This means that we are learning from other programmes and strategies, big and small, that have made positive steps to improving the experiences that we provide for our disabled customers. 

Here in the UK, disabled people account for 20% of the population, making them the world’s largest minority group. It’s estimated that the spending power of disabled people and their families is worth £249 billion. This figure is also growing around 14% per year. 

One of the aims of Purple Tuesday is to highlight some of the commercial and social benefits to businesses by making spaces more disability-inclusive. This goes beyond the physical space, to include websites and staff training to help your customers and clients who may or may not show that they have additional needs. 

This year over 3,500 organisations are expected to take part making over 5,000 commitments to improving the lives of people living with a disability.

To find out how we can help you to make your business as inclusive as possible. Take a look at what you can expect from an access audit today.

If you have any questions regarding our bespoke service, the Equality Act 2010, or any other general enquiries you would like to make, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us today. 

You can contact us by telephone on 0800 246 1759, by email, or by filling out our quick and simple online contact form

We look forward to hearing from you.


Here Are Some Dos And Dont's Of Disability Language

What’s the right way to refer to someone in a wheelchair, or a someone who can’t see, or see well, or a person who can’t hear, or hear well, someone who doesn’t speak, who has noticeable trouble understanding things, someone who is sick a lot, or always in pain, or who just seems strange or “off” in some undefinable way?

The contentious debate never seems to end over what are the right and wrong words and phrases to use to discuss anything to do with disabilities and disabled people. The question resists all attempts to forge broad consensus. Disabled people, their families and friends, their allies and casual acquaintances, and their antagonists can’t agree on which words strike the right balance between accuracy, clarity, realism, and positivity. Some of us hammer away at words we find outdated and offensive. Others look around, confused, wondering when the disability words they once learned as progressive suddenly became not only passé, but provocative.

Some try to use language to reshape the entire concept of disability, or redefine it out of existence somehow. Some use words to unify the diverse disability community, while others strive for specificity and ever finer distinctions between different disabilities and communities. Some work to curb the use of obviously insulting terms, while others take pride in the old adage about “sticks and stones.” Some hope to use language to lift disabled people up, while others prefer precision and linguistic elegance. We are carefully taught by one wave of credible activists and diversity consultants to say “people with disabilities,” only to be told by a later generation of disabled people that this diminishes the experience and meaning of disability, and is in any case awkward and a little condescending.

Is there a way for anyone to navigate disability language clearly, safely, and respectfully?

Obviously, it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. But that doesn’t mean there are no useful guidelines. Here are a few tips to sort through the competing schools of thought on disability language, and ride the various waves of popularity and revision that disability language goes through.

1. Recognize obviously insulting terms and stop using or tolerating them.

Idiot, imbecile, moron, and retarded for developmentally disabled or intellectually disabled ... deaf and dumb for deaf and non-speaking or non-verbal ... crazy, nut, looney, insane for mentally ill or mentally disabled ... cripple, gimp for physically disabled or just disabled. These are all terms which should never be used in conversation, and there would be little loss in communication if we did just stop using them except for historical or explanatory purposes (like their appearance in this article). One interesting thing to note is that nearly all of these insulting, offensive terms were once commonly accepted, even clinical descriptions for various disabilities. They weren’t viewed as insults at the time. And yet they have always carried the assumed prejudices of those times towards the people those terms represented. So while “moron” and “idiot” in the 19th and early 20th centuries were clinical terms for different “levels” of intellectual disability, the horrifically disdainful and disgusted opinions about intellectually disabled people helped make those words insulting, at the time and especially today.

This discussion of banning or rendering certain words taboo inevitably leads to “what-aboutism” aimed at people from marginalized groups “reclaiming” insulting terms for their own internal purposes. In the world of disability, this most notably applies to “cripple” and “crip,” which disability activists and participants in disability culture still use to refer to themselves, either ironically or defiantly.  It’s the kind of situation where if you are part of the group you can use it for yourselves, but from other people’s mouths it’s an insult. There are a dozen ways to analyze and justify or criticize this intellectually, but it’s also just the way things work with people who are marginalized or oppressed. People should be allowed to use terms that mean something to them. And others need to recognize the limits of their power to regulate this practice.

2. Aim to be factual, descriptive, and simple, not condescending, sentimental, or awkward.

One reason why disability language is still so controversial is that there is an almost hidden but quite fundamental clash between what people are trying to do with the words they choose and the phrases they craft to talk about disability. Roughly speaking, some want to use disability terminology to uplift disabled people or somehow repair the image of disability, while others aim for accuracy, simplicity, and a tone closer to neutrality. One approach encourages a degree of positive emotionalism and persuasion to be built into disability language. The other strives to be more sober, but also elegant and comfortable when spoken and written.

Terms like “differently abled,” physically or mentally “challenged,” “exceptional,” and “special needs” are generally well-intended, at least on the surface. But they are so obviously an effort to be kind, or nice, or positive and cheerleading that the effect on actual disabled people can be sentimental and condescending. It’s also an understandable but ultimately wrongheaded effort to promote equality not by elevating disabled people, but in a sense trying to deny the reality of disability as a meaningful concept or experience. As with other marginalized groups, we should know by now that refusing to acknowledge or talk about disability as a real experience doesn’t make life better for disabled people.

The main alternative is to be factual and descriptive. We can name specific types of disability, like cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, amputee, or blind. Or, we can use generic terms like disability or disabled, that at least attempt to encompass all kinds of physical, mental, cognitive, learning, or sensory disabilities. A close reading of “disabled” can always be made to appear negative. But it’s widespread use as a generic term for a set of common experiences and social positions make these terms as close to value neutral as can be possible, and therefore useful in the much more achievable goals of accurate identification, equality, and basic respect. Disability and disabled work elegantly simply to describe the shared social identity of all people who have any kind of disability. It’s the term to use when specific diagnoses are less important than the barriers we all encounter, the social position we all share, the ableism we all face.

A note here about “Person First vs. Identity First — using “person with a disability” or “disabled person.” It’s a debate largely within the disability community that is about evenly divided and in transition. “Person first” was supposed to emphasize personhood in contrast with summing up people by their disabilities. It also reflects how some disabled people experience their disabilities, as simply an aspect of themselves, but not something that defines them. But many disabled people increasingly feel that their disabilities are not invaders or merely inconvenient attributes, but something more central to who they are. And looking back, “person first” language seems to have been promoted mostly by non-disabled people for our benefit, not by us. A already noted, the power to define how we talk about ourselves is crucial in deciding which terms and language constructions should and shouldn’t be used.

3. Respect disabled people’s actual language preferences.

The most essential guideline for disability language is to use whatever words each individual disabled person prefers. Any well-meaning person’s reasons for the choices they believe in are largely secondary compared to respecting what how disabled person wants to be talked about and referred to.

Pay attention to the words adults with disabilities use most often. Some terms, like “special needs,” are popular in certain circles, for certain purposes, but almost entirely irrelevant to actual disabled people who are old enough to have developed their own understanding of their disabilities. Very few adults refer to their disabilities as “special needs,” which should maybe cause us to rethink using the term for kids and youth with disabilities.

Also take the time to learn what specific disability groups and cultures choose for themselves. Sometimes groups of disabled people make their own consensus choices, such as Little People, and Deaf people who capitalize the “D” in Deaf because they view it as a culture defined by language, like French. And read things written by disabled people, too. Take note of their choices in written language.

Finally, non-disabled people shouldn’t lecture disabled people on correct terminology. Almost no term is as insulting as a non-disabled person patiently or aggressively explaining to a disabled person why their own way of talking about themselves is wrong.

The rules and implications of disability language are always evolving. They don’t shift and change just to mess up nervous non-disabled people. They change as disabled people’s understanding of ourselves and our place in society changes, and as our aspirations change as well.

In the meantime, the best thing for all of us, disabled or not, is to follow these kinds of basic guidelines, listen to disabled people, and relax a little.

Published in Forbes: Sep 30, 2020